Uke fever hits Midcoast Maine
Waves from Hawaii take their time to arrive in Maine but a 19th-century innovation has taken hold around the Midcoast — not standup paddleboarding, though that also has landed, but the little instrument that could.
Ukuleles do indeed have their roots in Hawaii, where the four-stringed instrument was inspired by small relatives of the guitar brought to the Pacific island nation by Portuguese immigrants. Ukes enjoyed a heyday in the first quarter of the 20th century, as they were easy to play and portable enough to woo a flapper with. And then? Well, they kind of fell out of popular culture — although there was a brief return in the 1970s.
“I started playing guitar in high school; the only thing I knew about the ukulele was Tiny Tim,” said Jeff Weinberger, who teaches three different uke classes at Bay Chamber Community School in Rockport.
A previous generation enjoyed the occasional ukulele number on “The Arthur Godfrey Show,” but the rock ‘n’ roll generation only knew the instrument from “Hawaii 5-0” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” hardly a cool-kids draw. Weinberger has been playing guitar for more than 30 years and teaching it, as well; he currently offers guitar instruction through Camden’s K2 Music. His ukulele enlightenment came as much of the 21st-century revival has spread — on YouTube.
“I stumbled on the video by Jake Shimabukuro playing ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ in Central Park and thought, wow, I didn’t know you could play that kind of ‘serious’ music on the ukulele,” he said.
He got himself an inexpensive uke and started from scratch, getting some help from the numerous videos online. Not too far into the process, someone asked him to teach the instrument. Now, Weinberger teaches privately and leads three group courses that have just begun a new session at the Bay Chamber school, youth and beginner classes and a new Adult Ensemble.
“It’s not a strumming group but more along the lines of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I’ve got a background in composition and arranging and am working on arrangements of both classical and popular music. And we’ll have an international theme,” he said, offering Russian folk song “Two Guitars” as an example.
While this kind of ensemble is new to the area, people playing ukes together is the most common element of the revival — that and learning the basics via online videos. Strumming groups have popped up all around the world, and the Midcoast is no exception. There are weekly sessions in Thomaston — Thursdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Hampton Inn; Lincolnville — from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursdays at the United Christian Church; and East Belfast — Tuesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. at Harbor Hill. The Belfast group moves across the harbor to the waterfront gazebo in summer months.
The first to rattle the uke cage in the area was Frets Halligan, who hosts the Belfast group and more organized events such as a Ukulele Picnic planned for June 7 at the Belfast Boathouse. Halligan said he started playing guitar in fifth or sixth grade and got a ukulele a few years later.
“I put it aside but I held onto it. Something told me I was going to play it one of these days,” he said.
The day came at the end of the 20th century when, unbeknownst to him, the humble stringed instrument had begun a renaissance, spurred in part by the late, great Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s “Over the Rainbow.”
“It was like a bolt out of the blue! I was on YouTube and saw there were thousands of videos and thought what’s going on here?” he said.
He dug out that old uke, started playing around with it and ended up bringing it with him to a job at a summer camp in southern Maine. Some of the campers expressed an interest in the diminutive instrument “and I said, OK, let’s learn how to play it!”
Halligan has become uke missionary of sorts, hosting strumming groups, administering a uke enthusiast mailing list and screening the 2010 documentary “Mighty Uke” at local libraries and the like.
“It’s a great film, not just a good documentary but a fun documentary. It captures the essence of the ukulele: it’s a playful instrument,” he said.
A large part of the fun of the ukulele is that it is indeed easy to play, for young and old, “musical” or not. For every lifelong musician like Weinberger or Halligan who embrace the uke, there are people like Gordon Page, who organizes the Thomaston strumming group.
“It’s all new to me, but I’ve always wanted to perform music in some fashion. I got it as a gift from my eldest daughter,” he said of his soprano uke, the most commonly played size of the instrument’s family.
Page took some lessons from Halligan, after catching one of the “Mighty Uke” screenings, and last fall took a Five Town CSD Adult & Community Education group class taught by Celia Jones.
“After the class ended, I wanted to do something that would force me to practice and perform. There’s no instruction in our group and people who come are at all different levels,” he said.
Page secured the Thomaston’s strumming group’s location after chatting one day with Jamey Kitchen, the inn’s general manager and a former chamber of commerce colleague.
“He said the conference room is usually available so why not,” said Page, who had to make a one-time switch to Rockland’s Thorndike building a recent Thursday due to a booking at the inn.
“We get five or six each week. We’re mostly on the low side of experience; we jam and learn and make mistakes and listen to each other,” he said.
The Lincolnville Ukulele Group, which has been known to answer to the LUGbugs or LUGnuts, has been meeting not quite a year, led by the UUC’s pastor Susan Stonestreet. She said the group usually has between four and 10 attendees of various levels of expertise. All the local strumming groups use “The Daily Ukulele” fakebook, and players may bring in things they find online.
“Sometimes a number in ‘The Daily Ukulele’ doesn’t sit very well and I’ll work on it at home and bring it back for the group,” said Halligan.
That it can accommodate both casual players and serious musicians is part of the instrument’s egalitarian charm. Weinberger has enjoyed working up arrangements that incorporate plucking and “chucking” and melodic lines and more outré chord progressions, but is quick to praise the uke’s everyday appeal.
“You don’t have to be musical! Just about anybody can strum enough to join any of the groups,” he said.
He encourages people to check out the online videos and visit K2 Music — whose January Uke Night drew enthusiasts and the curious from all around — to check out the island instrument.
“I’ve got four, including two professional-level instruments, but I played my first one for about a year and still use it as a loaner. For 30 or 40 bucks you can get one to learn on, and it’s easier to do than in the old days, thanks to the Internet,” he said.
Such is the growing popularity of the ukulele locally that there is a Ukes of Midcoast Maine Facebook page, where Halligan has created an event for the Ukulele Picnic.
“It’s based on one I attended in Nashua, N.H. There were concerts all afternoon by regional performers, simultaneous workshops and, at the end of the day, there was a gathering of everyone to play “This Land is Your Land” — I think they were trying to break a record,” said Halligan.
The Belfast event will be similar, with free workshops and vendor displays during the day and a donation-requested concert at night.
“Joel Eckhaus will be the headliner and the Machias Ukulele Club will come down,” said Halligan.
Closer on the calendar will be one of his Instant Uke workshops — which involve an introduction to the instrument; tuning; and a couple of chords that translate into dozens of songs — in March at Belfast’s UU Church. And in April, he will travel to Virginia to offer workshops and concerts … nothing new for the journeyman musician but it is his first time doing so with uke.
“I really love to teach people, and teaching ukulele is as much instant gratification as you can get,” he said.
Weinberger agreed, saying “It’s accessible, affordable and it makes people happy.” And Stonestreet said her Thursday group has a favorite saying: When you’re playing a ukulele, you just can’t help but smile and have fun.